With the growing trend of adventurers travelling with their parents, hiking and coffee enthusiast Clare Johnson shares her own experiences and tips for how to travel (and survive) with parents.  Here she details her 3 week road trip with her parents through the North and South Island in New Zealand, and how having a bike to escape is very handy.

Trip of a lifetime

I have often been asked about what are my favourite memories as a child, and I can honestly say it is definitely not getting my first Barbie doll or that time I laughed so much I spat out orange juice on the table.  The happiest moments were when my family and I went to Bordeaux in the South of France for the holidays.  At the crack of dawn, with all bags and camping equipment tightly compacted into the back of my Dad’s car, we would take the odious 12 hour journey by car and ferry to the campsite.  A summer of swimming at the beach, cycling bikes and evening bbqs and playing card games was absolute perfection, and I will always cherish those memories.

Fast track 20 years and my Dad proposes the idea of visiting me in Malaysia before embarking on a 3-week road trip through New Zealand.  The 8 year old child in me jumped for joy and revisited those evenings of bonfires and setting up camp with a cup of tea.  I could not wait.  After months of planning routes, selecting excursions and booking campsites, everything would go very smoothly and be an exciting adventure for us all.  What could possibly go wrong?

How does the gear stick work again?

After arriving in Wellington, we went to pick up the RV that we would be driving from there through the North and South island, finishing in Christchurch before flying back to Malaysia.

My family and I are very much the kinesthetic learners; just give us the basics and we’ll work out the rest for ourselves.  Forget IKEA instruction manuals, give us the tools and we’ll sort it out.  Doesn’t quite work for an RV, where there are several thousand functions within such a compact vehicle.   We were advised to watch a 20 minute DVD that provided an in depth instruction of every gadget and button in the RV.  Nah, we’re good thanks.

Off we went! “Hang on….how does the gearstick work again?”  Those fateful words from my Dad were the start of many predicaments and headaches.

My feet are not too fat, it’s the pedals!

First stop was Waitomo in the North Island, where we would visit the famous limestone caves and see thousands and thousands of glow worms twinkling in the pitch black caves.  On route to the caves, we had some slight technical difficulties with the RV, and my Mum having a slight breakdown.   All of a sudden the engine would shut off so that the accelerator would cease to work, and my Dad would have to pull to the roadside and work out what happened.  Miraculously it would always restart after a few minutes, but when going 70kph down the highway, this is the last thing you would want to happen.  My Mum offered her expert opinion on what she thought the problem was:

“Your feet are too fat.”

“My feet are not too fat, it’s the pedals!”  

“It’s either your feet or your shoes.  I think it’s your feet.”

“Mum, I don’t think it’s his feet.”

“I told him to lose weight before going on holiday.”

My Dad was insistent on calling the company to get the engine checked as it happened multiple times before we reached the Waitomo Glow worm Caves.  The kerfuffle over my Dad’s overweight feet were long forgotten as we walked through these intricately detailed caves, and viewed the stunning twinkling glowworms.  

It was my turn to drive.  No problems with the engine…..turned out it was my Dad’s feet.  However to not hurt my Dad’s feelings, I blamed the pedals.

What’s that clinking sound?!

Our next stop was Rotorua, and with the constant clinking sounds of cups and plates banging in the cupboards, my Mum’s nervous disposition became more apparent.  Bobbing up and down in the back seat of the RV, she closed her eyes and thought of her happy place as me and my Dad kept our eyes on the road and drove.   It was lovely reminiscing with my Dad and sharing nostalgic memories of our family holidays together, and seeing the gorgeous greenery around us.  

However, my Dad steering around corners like Lewis Hamilton abruptly interrupted this.  You would think that a drunken brawl was happening in our kitchen cupboards, or that the milk was head-butting the jar of jam.  Nope, my Dad was getting more and more confident in conquering the Kiwi highway; I was trying to not lose my shit.  I’ve never seen my Mum squinting her eyes so tightly. 

The pungent smell of sulphur springs quickly awoke my Mum from her happy place, and we arrived at our campsite in Rotorua.  It truly is a stunning place to explore hot springs, mud baths and experience real traditional Maori culture.  We had a great time exploring the springs and mud baths at Hell’s Gate. My favourite excursion was visiting Whakarewarewa Forest to see the towering Redwood trees.  Strolling along the treewalks 20 metres above the ground with my parents was sensational, and we felt incredibly lucky to experience this together.  Oozing ourselves in thick mud and then baking in the sun helped to erase our Formula 1 journey, and we gave time for the milk bottle and jam jar to make up.

Give me a lift into bed would you, Clare?

We finished the day with a cup of tea and relaxed in the RV, talking about our next drive to Wellington that would take around 6 hours.  A long drive ahead, so we decided to go to bed early so that we were well rested for the next day.

My bed was technologically swanky, with a special button that you pushed to move it up and down from the ceiling.  Same with my parents’ bed, but theirs was slightly higher above the ground, making it more difficult to jump up.  Maybe not the best choice of bed for two retirees; one with a hip replacement and the other just shy of 5ft.  Nevertheless, they always endeavored to make the most of it and get into bed:

“Let me give you a lift into bed dear.”

“How Steve?”

“I’ll give you a lift up using my hands.”

“No Steve.”

“How else are you meant to get up?”

“Just………no Steve.”

“What about you Dad?  How are you going to get up into the bed?”

“Give me a lift into bed would you, Clare?”


“Link your hands together and I’ll step up.”

*Note: 6 days later it turned out that a secret draw that we thought was for storage was actually a step to help get into their bed.  We should have watched that bloody DVD.  My hands have never quite recovered since.  

Margaritas and crab fixes all problems

The drive to Wellington was a great opportunity to explore all of the beauty of the North Island, with fields and fields of greenery and stunning blue skies.  The clinking of the milk bottle and jam jar was less frequent than usual so did not disturb the tranquillity too much.  My favourite moments were when we parked up for lunch and explored the areas nearby, seeing lakes, rivers, farms and thousands upon thousands of sheep.  

The only downside to driving for 6 hours is when your Dad decides to discuss the world’s problems when all you want to do is get to the destination in under 6 hours.  The level of detail in my responses to Dad’s questions became less and less, to the point where all I did was grunt; my Dad did not like this.

Once we reached Wellington we were in need of food and a drink or 5.  We went to the docks and found incredible seafood and drinks that quickly erased all the conversational problems between me and my Dad.  The city itself was buzzing and allowed us to immerse in it with ease and enjoyment.  

Maybe I should have been more chatty, or maybe my Dad should have been less chatty.  Who knows?  At the end of the day, crab and Margaritas solve all problems. 

Escape on two wheels

We had now explored the North Island, and we were ready to catch the ferry to travel to the South Island where we would be spending Christmas.  Once we had used our skills in parking our RV in the style of the arcade game Tetris, we made our way to the deck and soaked in the wind and sun.  I cannot describe the stunning blue sky and mountainous views that surrounded us, water rippling and crashing below as we made our way to the South Island.  Me and my parents enjoyed that time of just laughing and forgetting all of our little mishaps that we had encountered so far.  This trip will get even better and better from now on.

Our first stop was Lake Tepako to relax before we embarked on the rest of the trip.  On route we wanted to stop somewhere for a scenic lunch and to bask in the beauty of the island.  When researching and creating an itinerary for this trip, I saw so many incredible photographs of travellers enjoying off-the-road meals, by a camp fire or parked in the wild.  I wanted that!  Driving along the highway we saw the perfect view of Mount Cook in the distance.  Yes, perfect!  Without hesitation I parked the RV on the side of the road; in my rearview I saw my Mum’s confused and apprehensive face.  

If you ignored the RV being at a slightly 30degree angle, having to catch the cups and plates sliding off the table, and the occasional delivery truck that sped past at 100kph honking its horn…….it actually wasn’t that bad.  You only had to be careful when opening the door in case you got clipped by a speeding wing mirror from another car.  Only problem is that if we had driven another 5 miles down the road, we would have seen the designated picnic area with the exact same view.  Oh well, at least we got a nice photo.

We arrived at Lake Tepako and set up camp to relax by the water.  I had hired a mountain bike and was itching to use it to go out exploring, but after the drive I was a little tired and wanted to sit in the camp chair with my parents.  As I sat down I heard the worst noise possible…………CRUNCH!  I turn to see my Dad holding the broken door shutter in his hand, and my Mum’s complexion turn 50 shades of red.

“Steve!  You’ve broken the bloody door!”

“I didn’t.  It just came off.”

“You and your bloody sausage fingers!”

“No need for that.”

I needed to escape.  I jumped on my bike and rode as fast as the wind to explore around Lake Tepako, and to allow enough time for my parents to vent.  It was exhilarating to explore the area this way, going through routes and pathways that I would not have been able to do without a bike.  After a few hours of riding my bike, I returned to find that no Armageddon had taken place, but quite a bit of duck tape had been used instead.

You’ve got to make the most of it, in rain or sunshine 

We arrived at Abel Tasman which was the hotspot for extreme sports and adventures.  I was keen to get going and booked myself for a whole day Canyoning trip.  The weather was not predicted to be very pleasant, but when you’re jumping and diving in freezing water in wetsuit, that doesn’t really matter.  My Mum thought that this would be a perfect Kindle day in the RV, but my Dad was keen to go to Abel Tasman National Park and explore the beaches.  Having come all this way, does a little sprinkle of rain really matter?

The next day I was picked up and went with an incredible group of people and amazing Canyoning experts.  We trekked to our starting point and made our way to the bottom through jumping, spinning, abseiling and sliding over rocks and through waterfalls.  I was really pushed out of my comfort zone and loved every single moment.  My biggest achievement was jumping from an 8 metre high waterfall, and everyone was clapping and cheering each person.  This was a great highlight.

When I returned I saw my Mum and Dad giving each other the silent treatment.  Turns out that walking along the beach in the pouring rain is not that much fun, especially when you’re the only ones doing it.  

Is that it?

Although they were fine with me, the silent treatment continued when we next went to Franz Josef.  I went on a Glacier tour, with a helicopter and hiked on the ice with a tour group; my Mum and Dad chose their own part of the RV to read and sulk.  

With my parents having not seen the Glaciers yet, I thought that this would be a perfect opportunity for us to walk together and try to unwind.  We trekked for 30 minutes to reach the viewpoint of the Franz Josef Glaciers, and there was only a slight drizzle.  This helped to break the tension and got everyone talking again.  After having walked and see the glaciers for myself, I couldn’t wait for my parents to see it for themselves.  We reached the viewpoint and saw a clear view of the glaciers with the sunlight glistening off the ice.

“Is that it?”

“What do you mean Dad?”

“Well, it’s not much is it.”

Well, at least it got my parents talking again.

Christmas Day

For a few days over Christmas we stayed at Milford Sound, which was one of the most spectacular places that I visited in New Zealand.  We stayed at a campsite and enjoyed a day of playing cards, cooking on the BBQ and relaxing with a few beers.  The adventurer in my Dad suggested the idea of going wild swimming in the freezing cold water; now I know where I get my adventurous side from!  In the evening the campsite hosted a Carol singing service and everyone was invited.  It really was a special night sharing this with people from all over the world.  

Again our mishaps during the trip had been forgotten, and we enjoyed this moment.

Boxing Day would prove to be a bit of a disaster.  When driving through the narrow windy roads coming out of Milford Sound, my Dad hit an oncoming RV’s wing mirror and smashed ours into pieces.  After I had exchanged a few expletive words with an impatient bus driver waiting behind us, we used my shoe laces to salvage the wing mirror and continued driving to our next destination Queenstown.  Absolute silence all the way.  My poor Dad. 

I could not let this ruin our once in a life time trip together.  What would make my parents feel better, and possibly lighten their mood from this ordeal?  How about watching me jump out of a plane, and then off a bridge?!

I had heard of the German term Shadenfreude, meaning having joy from the misfortune of others.  I knew that my parents wouldn’t enjoy seeing any misfortune come to me, but it was always worth a try!

Turns out that a 15,000ft sky dive and completing the highest bungy jump in New Zealand does the trick.  I knew it had worked when my Mum didn’t cry but was filming me on her mobile phone.

Last stop was Christchurch.  We dropped off the RV and got ready to fly back home.  Although at times the trip tested our patience and tolerance, we loved every single moment and laugh back at all the highs and lows of the trip. It may not have been exactly like my childhood trips to South of France, it was certainly an unforgettable experience with my parents.

I encourage anyone to travel with their parents if you have the chance.  You will not only learn more about your family, you will also learn more about yourself as a person.  

Top tips to survive adventurous trips with parents:

  • If there is an instructional manual or DVD for the vehicle that you hire, for goodness sake WATCH IT. 
  • Compliment your parents’ feet, no matter how many times they insist that they are have put weight on their toes or ankles.  If that fails, buy shoes for your parents that actually fit their feet.
  • Hire some form of equipment to escape in case of domestic emergencies – bicycle, scooter, skateboard…anything!
  • Search in your hired RV for every single secret draw, step or cupboard for anything that may help prevent you becoming a human stepladder.
  •  Do not be fooled by recreating any inspirational Instagram or social media photos; you only be very disappointed and possibly become road kill.
  • Only persist in doing excursions in the rain if you believe that it will not make anyone MORE grumpy.
  • Be prepared to jump out of a plane or off a bridge if someone needs to be cheered up.
  • If you argue with your parents, go out and do something fun and special together to forget life’s trivial problems.  You’re on an adventure, enjoy it and live for the moment!

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